I was born on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Just to be clear, I wasn’t actually born on the street, there’s a Kaiser Hospital there.
My dad was Joseph Zucman, and my mom is Sheila Perez Zucman. My mom’s parents were Josie Mendoza and Jose Perez, and my dad’s parents were Sara Duke and Sam Zucman.
Funny thing is, all four of my grandparents went by different names than the names they were born with. Josie Mendoza Perez was actually Bernadette Jacquez. Jose Perez was actually Jose Guerrero. Sam Zucman was actually Zucmanski, and Duke was actually Dukelski.
Because I grew up spending a lot more time looking into the television screen than I spent looking into the mirror, as a kid I just thought I was white. Later, looking at my huge Latin family, I thought I was Latin. It wasn’t till much later, actually it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to have to work with a Gay White Supremacist, that I came to learn that most people who look at my face think I’m Jewish. Looking back now, I can remember all the times different Jewish girls would be so nice to me. I never really understood why. I don’t know if I even realized they were being nice to me. But in retrospect, I think they saw something familiar in my face. Instead of just a homely kid, they saw a face that felt familiar. They saw a face that felt right.
When I began painting I wasn’t thinking about the robust Chicano or Jewish art communities. Even though I was painting portraits, they weren’t Latin or Jewish portraits. My portrait series Californium was a portrait series of many different Californians. They were portraits of people I found interesting.
My students today come from many places around the globe. Often they’re happy to live in California, but they are also proud of their ethnic heritage and the country of, often not their birth, but their parents birth. 100 years ago it was different. When my mom would ask my dad’s parents about their lives in Russia, they would never tell her anything, they would only say
That was the past. We’re Americans now.
All I know is that Sam and Sarah were both Russian Jews, who emigrated separately, and met and married in Philadelphia, the city of my father’s birth.
If you know a little bit about the treatment of Jews in Russia a hundred years ago, you can guess why my grandparents felt that way. But it’s only a guess.
As a kid I thought my grandparents were German Jews. Later I learned they were Russian Jews. Later my friend Ben Wegener said if your name is “Zucman”, then it was probably something like “Zuckermann”, and they were definitely German Jews. They may have emigrated from Russia to United States, but they must have been German Jews at some point.
Later still I learned that Zucman was Zucmanski, and Duke was Dukelski, so most likely they were Polish Jews. I have no idea if they ever lived in Poland, that ancestry might have come from earlier generations. Sam and Sarah may have lived their entire pre-American Life in Russia, I have no idea. But it seems like we’re Polish Jews.
Today I host a lot of CouchSurfers from Poland.
My great-grandmother, Magdalena Gomez Covian (1860 – ?) aka The Whip (so named because she once chased a husband out of the house with a bullwhip) had a lot of “husbands.” When the family moved from Autlán, Jalisco, Mexico, to the United States, my grandfather, Jose Guerrero, said that they were moving to a new country and that they should all have the same last name. Since Rosendo Perez was the oldest, Jose Guerrero said that they should all become Perez.
Bernadette Jacquez was born in El Paso, Texas. While her French father was down in Mexico working, her mother died. Her grandparents were afraid Jacquez would take Bernadette away when he came back, so they changed her name to Josephine Mendoza. When Jacquez returned to El Paso, the grandparents told him that both his wife and daughter had died. They showed him two graves. I don’t know what happened to Jacquez after that. A little while later both grandparents died. Josephine/Bernadette was an orphan. Some years later a guy who was recovering from having his leg amputated after falling while trying to jump on a moving train was hanging around El Paso. He used to bother Josie. Then he married her. Sometime later my mother was born in Lamar, Colorado.
We’re Americans now
All 4 of my grandparents lives were identity odysseys. But true to my grandparents words, my parents were Americans now. They loved this country and what they believed it was about. Second only to the day my dad died, the saddest day in my mother’s life was the day JFK was assassinated.
As a portrait painter I didn’t paint portraits of the past, but of the future I was excited about. And then I made video installations. I spent over a year working on a video about our cybernetic 21st century, only to overshadow it with a 5-screen, 89-actor, project about identity that I made in 2 weeks.
Meanwhile, while I wasn’t looking, I became what my father had been: a guy who had a camera and documented things. My dad loved having people over for his slide shows. I think it was his favorite thing to do. At the end of his life, his only request to me was,
Show my slides.
Today I post albums online: Flickr for art events, and Facebook for family events. I don’t make the paper albums that dad once made, but I’ve made so many dozens of websites.
Identity in Cyberspace
It’s funny, I only created Robot Artists for a year or so, yet still today when I mention it to people they get excited and want to know more.
When I talk about Avatar Art, mostly peeps just get confused.
I was aware of Virtual Worlds for some years before I actually explored them. When I first signed up for one, it didn’t allow just any user name. Your “name” was a collaboration between you and the algorithm. A user name like “Glenn Zucman” wasn’t possible. Everything I’d ever done in cyberspace before that moment was under the name “Glenn Zucman”. Now I was being invited to try putting on a different identity.
It was an invitation to explore identity.
It was an invitation to hack identity.
That I’m aware of, I’ve really only experienced discrimination because of my identity twice in my lifetime. The first was the Gay White Supremacist. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be a member of an oppressed minority, and turn around and oppress someone else. I naively imagined that the experience of oppression produced tolerance. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.
The second was when my avatar was banned from Google+ because they didn’t like our kind.
After a few years of Google+ witch hunts, Google fired their VP of witch hunts, Vic Gundotra. Google never applogized for all the lives they’d disrupted by trying to dictate identity from the top down. Of their policy and their former VP the company said simply,
Yes these are first world problems, but they’re still the reality of our world. One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed was an avatar who’d had a couple thousand Facebook friends, and was Facebook partnered with his avatar partner, respond to being banned by Facebook (like Google+’s former policy, Facebook still doesn’t like our kind). He’d created a new Facebook account, had reconnected to about 25 friends, and was broadcasting wherever he could that he was returning from being banned and could all his friends please re-friend him.
Seeing a giant, heartless corporation like Facebook slash the tapestry of a life, and then watching the victim try frantically to reweave those threads before they are lost forever, was heartbreaking.
We’re All Angels
You might wonder why an avatar needs a Facebook account? Especially if Facebook hates avatars. I used to wonder about Gay Christians. If there’s a church that rejects your identity, then why do you want to be a part of that church? Then I saw the beautiful documentary We’re All Angels and I understood. For the film’s main characters, Jason & deMarco, and for their fans across this nation, being Christian, like being Gay, is an essential part of their identity. When you hear hate being preached in the name of something you believe in, you don’t change your identity, you look for a way around the hate.
And so the wounded avatar worked to rebuild the years of connections that Facebook had cut across with the flip of a switch.
Avatar as Art
After poking around in VR for a little while, a performance opportunity came along. A professor from the University of Kansas was leading a graduate seminar. They were curating a virtual world art exhibition and would I like to show something.
I was aware that artists like Eva & Franco Mattes had reperformed RL performance art works from artists like Marina Abramovic in VR, and I thought it would be interesting to perform something like a Vanessa Beecroft work in a virtual world. Beecroft’s works are structured and stylized, but they also bear a simplicity in their unmediated quality. The history of art is filled with artists painting and sculpting the human figure from models. When the work is shown in a gallery or museum, the model is absent. Only the experience of the model as mediated by the artist’s talented hands is presented. In Beecroft’s works there is no painting, sculpture, or other mediated experience, the body of the model is the art itself.
Although in 2009 when I started this work I wasn’t at all aware of the Civil Rights in Cyberspace issues with platforms like Facebook and Google+ (G+ wouldn’t even be launched for another 2 years) this early work already started to claim a space for avatars as legitimate identities. The first work was simply 9 avatars who stood for the 2-hour duration of the art opening. Rather than a photograph or some other mediated experience of the avatar, it was the avatar itself as a work of art. As a being worth considering. As an identity worthy of existing.
From VR Performance Art to VR Public Art
In the past 8 years I’ve created about 100 Performance Art and Public Art works in virtual worlds. The early Works tended to be highly scripted performance art pieces. Over time I came to appreciate the power of empowering people, and also their desire to be more individually expressive. Over time the scripting for me became less and less, and the invitations for individuals to create as part of a larger whole became more and more.
Perhaps nothing has become more iconic than the Avatar Pride Parade. Similar to an RL Pride Parade, this is an experience of pure identity expression. And similar to an RL Pride Parade it is a statement that we are here. You can’t have LGBTQ rights, or rights for the Differently-abled, or anyone else, if you aren’t willing to be out in the world and be seen and do your best to be heard.
The Nymwars as launched by Google Plus, and now continued by Facebook, have been oppressive, but oppression also helps to create identity. Having someone hate you is a great way to understand who you are.
Back to “reality”
After many dozens of VR performance art works, and later VR public art works, this ad hoc series of works gave way to the more formalized structure of Medici University. Medici University is an alternate education program for avatars. 2015 was a spectacular year for Medici University. But toward the end of 2015 I found myself spontaneously taking a sabbatical from MU. And about a month later without even realizing I was doing it at first, I founded Runaway University, not for avatars, but for international students.
In 12 years I’ve taught nearly 5,000 students at Long Beach State University. Some great students, and some very good students, but also so many unengaged students. The opportunity to attend a University, which I still find such an extraordinary privilege, is a chore of little interest for so many. For too many.
Since no one has to attend Medici University, or Runaway University, the only people who do attend are people who choose to attend. People who truly choose to be present. When someone spends hundreds of hours leveling up in a video game, it is a tremendous amount of work. It is hard work! But what is unique here is that no one is ever assigned to level up. To do the hard work of fully mastering a video game is only something that one does by choice and one only chooses to do that if it’s meaningful to them. Somehow college has become the opposite of this. Somehow something as simple as a video game is done with great passion, yet something as profound, diverse, and rich as a college experience, is too often done with lethargy.
Medici University and Runaway University have become laboratories for engaged and empowered educational experiences. I’ve used my teaching at Long Beach State University as a baseline or control group. And I’ve tried to feed some of the insights from MU and RULA (Runaway University Los Angeles) back into my RL teaching.
Of Dreidels and Nymwars
When the Jewish girl at Burger King gave me a dreidel, when the Jewish girl at the community college gave me a kiss, I had no idea that they were prefiguring my career. I didn’t even know that they were telling me I was Jewish. But in fact from that dreidel all the way to being banned by Facebook, my career has, whether I knew it or not, been about identity. In subtle, for me sometimes imperceptible ways, Jewish girls, gay white supremacists, and even Google’s Vic Gundotra, were telling me something about my own identity. In time I would come to help others express their identity.